Christianity and the ecological crisis: ‘lament, hope and action’
The following article is based on a sermon given by the writer on Sunday 7 October 2012 as part of the conference Christianity and the Ecological Crisis: Lament, Hope and Action.
Humanity is blessed to inhabit a planet of exquisite beauty, diversity, richness and wonder; a planet set within a cosmos of extraordinary scale, grandeur, splendor and mystery. Unsurprisingly, the first chapter of Genesis culminates with the firm proclamation that "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Yet the nature of this goodness needs clarification. After all, creation is ongoing; it is in the process of becoming; it is not yet finished. New stars continue to be born; species continue to evolve. Further, cosmologists believe that the universe of which we are part will eventually end, possibly collapsing in upon itself in a so-called 'big crunch'.
In what sense, then, is God's creation ‘very good’? Saint Irenaeus of Lyons suggests we should think of goodness in terms of "that which is destined for perfection" (Gunton, 1998). From this perspective, the assessment of creation as being "very good" refers to the point when temporal history as we know it ends and the cosmos is renewed and redeemed by God - not replaced or done away with, incidentally. This belief in the eventual transformation of creation constitutes what the theologian Richard Bauckham (2012) refers to as our "ultimate hope". The self-giving of Christ and his bodily resurrection are signs of God’s deep concern with the material world and his commitment to its eventual transfiguration.
Whereas St. Paul talked of the ‘groaning’ of creation, today, viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology we would say that the natural world is characterised by competition, predation, violence and pain. Put bluntly, God's evolving creation is deeply ambiguous. There is great majesty, orderliness, cooperation, interdependence, productivity and thriving. Yet there is also extraordinary wastefulness, indifference, randomness, selfishness and brutality. The God who made this universe has made a world where there is the potential for colossal destruction and enormous harm.
Over the past 540 million years we know of at least five mass extinction events, that is, events where more than 50% of this planet's species were destroyed. We are now in the midst of a sixth great extinction event that is gathering pace. Whole ecosystems are being destroyed; whole ways of being lost forever. But what makes this latest mass extinction different from those of previous epochs is the cause. The reason lies not in massive volcanic activity or asteroid impacts, but the willful actions of human beings.
We are devastating the great tropical rain forests. We are polluting the waterways, lakes and oceans. We are destocking the oceans of fish. We are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and warming the planet. We are eroding the fertility of our soils. We are draining the Earth of its precious supplies of fossil water and fossil fuels. We are borrowing from the future and leaving our grandchildren a dreadful legacy in the form of a huge ecological debt.
These claims are the studied conclusions of thousands of the world's best scientists. Thus far, their concerted pleas for humanity to change its ways have largely gone unheeded. As a result, the ecological crisis is deepening. Even with radical policy changes now, the legacy of the environmental damage we have wrought will be long and bitter. Much harm is now unstoppable. In short, we are living beyond our means.
To give but one example: recent scientific evidence suggests that global warming will cause the sea level to rise by as much as a metre by the end of this century, and many more metres in subsequent centuries. There is little we can now do to prevent this. Yet even a rise of one metre could displace over 150 million people globally.
There is thus much to lament. There is a sobering irony in the fact that the species who is wreaking such havoc is one who bears the image of God and ranks as the crowning pinnacle of this planet's 4.5 billion year journey. What might constitute a proper Christian response? Let me offer six quick reflections.
First, as Christians we must acknowledge the disturbing challenges that confront us. Humanity has the potential to eliminate much of the life on this planet - possibly all life. God has given us this remarkable freedom either to destroy or affirm His creation. There is neither place for complacency nor room for denial, avoidance, evasion or escapism. The path we follow should be informed by the best available evidence and guided by wisdom, prudence and precaution.
Second, we must avoid being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead or paralysed by fear, foreboding or depression. We need to be constantly reminded of Jesus' comforting words when his disciples were fearful or anxious: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27). God has not abandoned us. "Behold," Jesus said, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
Third, we should not be presumptuous. We should not expect God to save us from our folly. We cannot lay waste to countless ecosystems or destabilise the planet's climate system without suffering the consequences. God calls us to exercise intelligent, responsible stewardship, to protect the natural order.
Fourth, we should avoid an improper faith in the power of technology to save us from the perils that lie ahead. We cannot change the basic laws of nature. There are real biophysical limits within which we must live. We who are Christians should not delay in making the required policy and lifestyle changes on the basis that ‘something will turn up’ or that ‘science will save us’. We have no right to pass the buck to future generations.
Fifth, the unfolding ecological crisis should not be welcomed - whether on the basis that it signals the imminent return of Christ or on the grounds that previous mass extinctions have led, albeit only after millions of years, to a new flowering in the long evolutionary journey of our biosphere. There is nothing good about destroying countless species or degrading this planet's life-support systems. It needs to be stopped.
Finally, our efforts to conserve, heal and restore God's creation will never be in vain. Nor should we value our efforts simply on the basis of the progress, or lack thereof, that we can see. Doing what is right is important and valuable, regardless of the apparent outcome. When Paul remarks that "our labour in the Lord will not be in vain" (1 Cor 15:58), he does not imply that our strivings will inevitably lead to an improvement in our current circumstances. Rather, that they “will have effects that will be preserved in the new creation" (Bauckham, 2012).
This is where faith is crucial. We worship a God who has entered our history, embraced the life of humanity, and triumphed over the forces of darkness. This God is faithful and full of grace. Hence, as Rowan Williams has put it, "we have to say, as believers, that the possibility of life is never exhausted within creation: there is always a future.
The ecological crisis today confronts each of us with a choice. What kind of legacy will we leave for future generations? Will we live in a way that honours rather than threatens the planet? Will we show a reverence for the whole of life and respond to God's summons to demonstrate responsibility? Or will we continue to create a scarred and impoverished planetary wasteland? God has given us this choice.
A full transcript of the original sermon with complete references is available on request.
Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies in the School of Government at the Victoria University of Wellington.
Bauckham, R. (2012) "Ecological Hope in Crisis?" John Ray Initiative, JRI Briefing Paper No. 23.
Gunton, C. (1998) The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press).
Williams, R. (2009) "The Climate Crisis: Fashioning a Christian Response", 13 October.